All photos by Amy Miller.
Late harvest: the two words conjure images of golden afternoons picking apples amidst the scent of drying leaves and smoke fire in the cool autumn air. At this time of year most vineyards have long finished their harvest, but in some regions winemakers will leave a portion of their grapes on the vine late into the season. That extra dose of sunshine, translates into wines with an added layer of honeyed richness, complexity, and delicate sweetness. A great match with apple pies or pear tarts, they feel in sync with the season.
One place that excels in these late-harvest styles is Alsace, where they’re known as vendange tardive.
By quirk of geology Alsace happens to provide the perfect conditions for extended ripening. Despite its northerly latitude this narrow strip of land in northeastern France sits in the shadow of the Vosges Mountains, which protects the area from westerly storms and makes it one of the driest, sunniest wine regions in France. Grapes can therefore stay on the vine late into October or November and may even develop some Botrytis cinerea, better known as noble rot.
It’s a style Alsace shares with its neighbor to the east, Germany, which for much of its history considered the region as its own. In the last four centuries, the area bounced between France and Germany five times. Not until the end of WWII did it finally settle firmly within France’s border. This dual cultural heritage remains evident today. While most people speak French, the German dish choucroute garnie is a local specialty, and many of the towns are filled with medieval, half-timber houses straight out of a Brother’s Grimm fairytale.
The German influence is apparent in the wine too: they come in long, slender bottles, riesling is the starring grape and for many years their late-harvest wines were labeled the same as their German counterparts: spätlese and auslese for the grapes left to ripen late into the season, and beerenauslese for individually picked berries affected by Botrytis. This turned out to be not only confusing for consumers, but a lack of legal standards led to uneven quality and some pretty insipid wines.
Enter Jean “Johnny” Hugel, whose family has been making wine since the 1639. Hugel et Fils is one of the leading producers from the region, and late harvest wines are one of their specialties. In the 1970s, Johnny Hugel took umbrage at the inferior wines others produced and set about establishing legal standards. He died in 2009, but one of his great accomplishments came in 1984 when he succeeded in passing what is now affectionately referred to as “Hugel’s Law.” It established minimum must weights for grapes at harvest and set up a tasting panel to approve the final wines. And just to make it perfectly clear that these were French wines he introduced the terms vendange tardive for late harvest wines and sélection de grains nobles for those affected with noble rot. One very un-French but helpful tradition has been to indicate the grape variety on the label, the only region in France to do so.
How successful have these changes been? The proof is in the bottle. Made only in the best years, a vendange tardive from a top producer can be a revelation. When grapes are left on the vine until the edge of desiccation, the concentrated sugars and flavors find their way into the wine. There is a density and purity of fruit that when accompanied with laser-like acidity can make the wine sing. To make things even more interesting, in Alsace four different varieties are allowed, each with its own repertoire of flavors. Riesling can show peach and petrol, while muscat delivers flowers and honey. Pinot gris can range from baked apple to orange marmalade, while gewürztraminer’s signature notes are rose petal and lychee.
Two Wines to Try:
2000 Hugel et Fils Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive. The grapes for this wine come from one of the oldest parcels in one of their grand cru vineyards and was harvested in late October. At 15 years old the wine is still in its youth with a lively acidity and deep concentration of fruit. The variety’s signature lychee flavor is there, along with apricot, honey and beautiful floral notes. These are Hugel’s specialty, and it shows.
2004 Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Brand Vendange Tardive. From one of the region’s top producers, this stellar wine puts all of riesling’s attributes on display: bright, vibrant acidity, ripe peach, apple and apricot, with a gorgeous long length. This would be great on its own or as an accompaniment with cheese, an Alsatian Muenster perhaps.